Monday, August 23, 2010

Mad Men - A Sobering, and Girls at Play

How was season 4 episode 5 of Mad Men refreshingly textured and marvelous? Let me count the ways, or some of them:

  1. It featured the return of rock star Don Draper in lieu of the pathetic alcoholic we have seen of late wearing his suits -- sure, I'm willing to see Don decline into a bitter, feckless drunk, but the decline was starting to feel a little too static: he was drinking too much, his social graces were falling off, his Lothario was suddenly disabled. Here, at last, we saw him move forward, which is not to say he's remade and reformed.
  2. In that connection, the episode did some needed showing rather than mere telling of Don's genius as a creative businessman. I would not say I found the Honda commercial caper terribly plausible -- frankly, I did not, though as with many things that flit across the big and small screens, it was the kind of thing that makes us long for a more enchanted world in which schemes like that would work. Then again, stranger things have happened in this crazy world of ours, and, credible to the Nth degree or not, it was definitely a bold and inspired move that elegantly solved multiple problems.
  3. Best of all, the episode gave us substantial steps forward on character development for Betty, Roger, Sally, Henry, Faye, Pete -- all these being good and rich characters that have been too neglected of late.
  4. Last and not least, the episode featured more of the comic stylings of Don's new 800-year-old secretary-in-training, who is doing a spectacularly bad job at everything except avoiding Don's lusty gaze, where she excels.
A few particular points on the third item: for me, this episode marked the first time since somewhere in the mists of last season when Betty, Don's ex-wife, emerged as a sympathetic character -- deeply ironic given that she spent the episode emotionally, even physically, striking at her daughter, Sally, for offenses no worse than struggling with hormonal and family upheaval. In her conversation with Sally's new counselor, Doctor Edna (of whom we can hope to see more), we saw the way women of that era -- and not only it, alas -- perpetuated a disgust for female sexuality if only because they had no developed alternate framework in which to conceive it. Though groundbreaking works by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan had emerged by early 1965, these works and the second wave feminism they inaugurated had massive social, cultural, historical, and personal baggage to fight through.

We caught a sharp, clear glimpse at the way Betty's mother must have framed a "woman's proper place" for Betty, especially the strict boundaries around sexuality; and we saw Betty pass that same pained strictures forward to her own daughter. Let us hope Dr. Edna can point the way to a broader view for both.

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